As President Obama’s terms in office come to an end, eight years after he entered office he has yet to deliver on one of his most prominent campaign promises: to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. He is now poised to leave it to the next administration. Though the prison was opened under President George W. Bush, Guantánamo has in many ways become Obama’s prison, the title of a recent book of essays edited by Jonathan Hafetz, to which CCR’s Guantánamo lawyers contributed. Over the remaining weeks of Obama’s presidency, we will be posting excerpts from their contributions. Below is our second installment, an excerpt from CCR Senior Staff Attorney Shayana Kadidal, “Mental Illness Before Guantánamo.”
“[W]e never managed to have a conversation with him about the substance of any of the allegations the government made, no matter how outlandish. He would suddenly be rendered completely out of it the second the conversations turned to the details of the government’s claims, but that was at some level entirely typical for detainees for a variety of reasons—most often, anxiety at answering the same questions they’d been asked during early, brutal interrogations at Bagram, Kandahar or Guantánamo. But this client started tapping his head every time we talked about the past, and soon after the tapping started, invariably, he was unable to speak or function. Was it just anxiety, a block that we’d eventually get through together? Conscious avoidance that just appeared exactly the same as mental illness? (And why was I more skeptical than the skeptic who interviewed him in Bagram?) Or was he trying to shut down another voice in his head?
I met with him in a little meeting shed at Guantánamo in May 2009, telling him that we’d have to talk in some detail about all of this on the next visit. In mid-April I went down to Guantánamo again, and he wouldn’t come out to meet me. For a whole week. So I had no choice but to look for clues in the sterile record back stateside.
First off, it didn’t seem to make sense that anyone could take a taxi to Tora Bora, located high up in the White Mountains, a relatively impassable part of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, certainly way out of the way if you were heading to Peshawar. And there were references to a “Bara” (with two As, and no O) elsewhere in the early interrogation notes. So we looked for any Bara we could find. Maps were no help at first. But if our guy had taken a taxi from Jalalabad to Pakistan, the Khyber Pass was almost the only plausible route, it had been open to nonofficial traffic at various times even in the months directly after 9/11. And a straight line from Jalalabad over the pass led to Peshawar, the final destination of that cab ride. Could the Bara I was looking for be somewhere along that line? After weeks of looking, a clue—references in an old tourist book to a “Fort Bara”—led me to look on 19th-century maps. And then finally, on Google Books, there it was: Ft. Bara, built out by the British on what was then the western frontier of Imperial India. Now it was a suburb, long ago swallowed by the metastatic city of Peshawar, a place flush with refugees and migrants since the dictatorship of and perhaps long before then as well.
So he did indeed take a taxi from Jalalabad to Bara and then into Peshawar. But in the round of bin Laden bingo being played in all those early interrogations, “bara” became “[Tora] Bora.”
In an opening scene of the Terry Gilliam/Tom Stoppard movie Brazil, there is a moment when a fly happens into the mechanism of a manual typewriter, causing the name of a suspected terrorist (“Tuttle”) to type out on a form as “Buttle.” A hapless cobbler, Archibald Buttle, is then detained by a party of storm troopers who raided his home, carving a hole in his ceiling, rappelling down through it, and whisking him away from his easy chair in front of the disbelieving eyes of his wife and children. In our case, the typo came after the fact, only taking on significance as the authorities tried to justify holding him for eight years. And the police, Pakistanis, probably didn’t drop out of a hole in the ceiling. But they did take him away in front of his wife and infant daughter. More on them later.”
Get the book and read the entire chapter, Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison.